Tuesday, January 27, 2009


This week’s Torah Portion is Naso, the second parshah in the book of Numbers. Also Wednesday and Thursday were Shavuot and Monday is Memorial Day, so I’ve been thinking about how to tie all these together.

Among all the rules and regulations that constitute most of Leviticus and Numbers, the Torah Portion contains two elements that stand out for me. One relates to a story you may have heard me tell around Passover – after the census of all 12 tribes in last week’s Parshah, this week the four groups that were central to worship in the Temple were numbered and brought offerings. The first to do so was one Nachshon ben Aminadav of the tribe of Judah – the same Nachshon that, when the Hebrews were fleeing from Egypt, was the first to jump into the Red Sea, after which the waters parted. For this “leap of faith,” Judah was given primacy among the tribes and Nachshon brought the first offering. Those of you who have heard me tell this story at Passover know that Nachshon is one of my favorite characters in the Torah because he was willing to act on faith and trust in God’s word.

In the Haftarah this week we see the birth of Samson, the great hero and another case of an elderly, barren couple being granted a child by God, who commands that the child be, from birth, a Nazirite – an ultra-observant Jew who never cuts his hair, eats meat, etc., and the rules for Nazirites are also in this Parshah.
Shavuot is the anniversary of the revelation at Sinai and of the Ten Commandments. While it is one of the three pilgrimage festivals in the Jewish year, it isn’t well-known or widely observed – no special meals, no big services, no home ceremonies. Traditionally we eat dairy in observance of the promise of a “land of milk and honey” and some Jews stay up all night studying Torah to make up for the legend that the people fell asleep while Moses was on Mt. Sinai. And we read the Book of Ruth – the story of a woman gentile woman who converted and was loyal to her mother-in-law after her husband’s death. Ruth then married a man named Boaz, and was an ancestor of King David.

So how does this all tie together? Actually, to tie it up we have to go several generations forward from Sinai. Nachshon was an ancestor of Boaz, who was an ancestor of King David, who according to the story of the Christian Bible was an ancestor of Jesus, as the prophets foretold the Messiah would be. Whatever you believe about Jesus, the lineage of the whoever the Messiah is will reach back through King David to Nachshon at Sinai and at the Red Sea.

But for me the focus of Parshat Naso is the reappearance of Nachshon and the realization that his otherwise unheralded act at the Red Sea brought the Tribe of Judah to the forefront of the twelve tribes, setting the stage at least for King David, who was really the first to create the nation of Israel. We know very little about Nachshon personally – he was a prince of Judah and he must have had great faith, when others were afraid to enter the sea, to the point of being willing to make a hopeless stand against the Egyptian army, he jumped in. God had said they would cross the sea, but I’ve always found it interesting that God did not part the sea until this one man had the faith and courage to jump in – perhaps the origin of the saying that God helps those who help themselves.

Jews don’t talk much about why we are supposed to do what we’re supposed to do. Maybe it’s the influence of being brought up by Jewish mothers, but mostly it seems to be “do it because God said so.” We even say to God in Exodus that we will obey, then we’ll understand. But why? There are intimations in the Bible about a “world to come” – ha’olam haba – the next world, but this isn’t spelled out very clearly, and the prophets allude to the possibility of resurrection of some kind, but again it’s vague. Mostly, we are supposed to do the right thing in this world because it’s the right thing to do – Judaism is, perhaps above all, an ethical system. Halachic Jews try to keep all of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, and Karaite Jews say that that’s the most important thing – follow the letter of the law. Some Jews, especially in post-Temple times, have said that the Law is impossible to follow, so it’s no use following any of it. Reform Jews and those very early reform Jews who followed Jesus, said that on the one hand the Law doesn’t go far enough – it’s not enough to do the right thing, you have to do the right thing with the right heart behind it – and on the other hand, it goes too far – for example, why would anything God made be unclean to eat? – and so what counts is faith and morality – from there you will do the right thing.
I’m fond of quoting the Prophet Micah who said “You have been told what is good and what God requires of you: only to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.” The Talmud says in several places that this, like Hillel’s “what is hateful to you, do not do to someone else” is a good concise summary of the Law. If we take Nachshon as an exemplar, clearly he meets Micah’s and Hillel’s criteria – what could be more humble before God than to act on faith alone? He was a prince of Judah, but would not have his tribe do something he would not do, and we could argue that his leap was an act of mercy in that it spared many on both sides from being killed in the fight that would have happened had the people taken their stand on the west shore of the sea instead of singing and rejoicing on the east shore. That the Egyptians chose to follow and were drowned goes on them, not on Nachshon or the Hebrews.

In the Pirke Avot, Rabbi Tarphon says “The day is short, the task is hard, the workmen are sluggish, the reward is great, and the Master of the work is demanding.” He also said, It is not for you to finish the work, nor are you free to abandon it.”;

When I was young I wondered about that passage. It seemed to mean something along the lines of “life is hard, and you’re stuck with it.” As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to a different appreciation of it
I think it means that if your life is going to mean something, if you’re out to make a difference in the world, you’ll need to take on something that is beyond what you think you can do – to take on tasks that seem impossible and, like Nachshon, leap in on faith. If you do, you’ll soon find that you don’t have enough time – the day is short – the task is hard, the people you work with and for seem to be dragging their feet sometimes, and the importance of the work will demand that you stay with it.

Most importantly, you will learn that the things in life that are truly worth doing, whether it’s raising children, serving your community, fighting disease, ending hunger, fighting injustice, or whatever you take on, are things you can’t expect yourself to finish, and yet you’re not free to abandon them. You could say that, where the big problems of the world are concerned, we are the keepers, the stewards of those problems, not the solvers.

That brings me to Memorial Day. I hate war. I'm not quite a pacifist – I recognize that sometimes war is the only possible course of action, but I view it as a failure of faith, a failure of humanity, and a failure of communication. I avoided Vietnam and I don’t know what I’d advise my children if I had children of military age today. But I do think that for the individual enlistee or draftee, to go to war is an act of faith. Faith in the justness of your country’s stand, faith in your fellow soldiers, and faith in yourself, and so it’s like Nachshon’s leap, and so it’s right and an honorable thing to remember our war dead and to honor their sacrifice, as much as we might deplore that the sacrifice was called for. It is an act of stewardship – the soldier’s hope is to leave the world a better place, even if what it takes to do that is something as horrific as war.

The main thing, I think, in Micah’s terms is to “walk humbly,” even in the extreme of going to war. I have never believed that God is on our side, or anyone’s sides. Why would God take sides? If God really took sides, there would be no sides. The multiplicity of religions, philosophies, nations, views, creeds, are all part of God’s plan, or God is not who we think he is. Clearly, God favors diversity and is at least willing to tolerate the conflict that diversity brings, and that conflict and the creativity that it engenders may be part of God’s plan.

So that’s my wish for us this Shavuot/Memorial Day. That we take on big problems - hard tasks that are worth doing. That we demand much of ourselves, and dedicate ourselves and our lives to making a difference in something that will matter. To leap like Nachshon into the uncertainty that comes with taking on more than we know we can do and that what we take on is doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.

I’ll close with another quote, from the great humanitarian Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who had this to say about people who take on big jobs: “Existence will thereby become harder for them in every respect than it would be if they lived for themselves. But at the same time it will be richer, more beautiful and happier. It will become, instead of mere living, a real experience of life.

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